The most complicated question you could ask me right now is “what day is it?” I started September 7 in DC, ended it somewhere at some time over the ocean, began September 8 in Dakar, Senegal
and ended the day in Cape Town, South Africa. I can’t tell you what time it is at home and our group took a ridiculous amount of time in the hotel lobby debating what day it is here and now, and what that means for tomorrow.
The trip has been better than I even dreamed so far, though, and even the full 24 hours of travel weren’t as bad as I’d feared (I might change my mind about that tomorrow morning…whatever tomorrow is). Friday, September 7 started with a fancy hotel breakfast looking out at the grey skies of DC mornings that seem hopeful or oppressive, depending on your outlook or the current success of your political party.
The hotel restaurant played lovely music while I enjoyed what might be the nicest breakfast I’ll have all month – a fact that moved from soothing to completely awesome when they actually played “The Jackal.” If you’re not a West Wing nut you won’t get why this is the best thing that could happen to anyone at a hotel in DC; if you are, then you know how difficult it was for me not to slip into CJ impersonations while pondering eggs vs. pancakes.
The day very quickly turned into a crash-course in Africa 101. Whirlwind meetings took us from the ACYPL offices to the State Department, then on to meet with ambassadors to the U.S. from Namibia and South Africa.
Our route between meetings took us down 23rd Street NW as we headed toward the State Department. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment when I realized it’s the same path I would frequently walk when I lived in Foggy Bottom for the internship in 2004. Most of the time I don’t feel like I’ve done much since college, but today brought an assurance that maybe I’m not doing so badly after all.
I got over it really fast when we got to the State Department, because there’s nothing that makes you feel as ignorant as being around people who are really, really knowledgeable. Granted, the briefings we received were from people who have built a career around knowing Africa but still, I wished I’d managed to become an expert before I arrived. Here are some of the highlights from the 16 pages of notes I took in five hours (nope, not an exaggeration):
· There are approximately 8,000 alumni of ACYPL delegations, spread across 150 countries. The list from Arizona spans more than two typed pages and contains both the famous and the infamous in Arizona politics. I’ll let you decide which category I belong in.
· There are approximately 720,000 foreign students that come to study in America each academic year. Last year, 1,669 of those were from South Africa and approximately 76 were from Namibia. On the flip side, 226 American students studied in Namibia and about 4,300 went to South Africa.
· The U.S. relationship with both Namibia and South Africa is great and getting better. (Much more details on that as the trip unfolds).
· This year has gotten more politically complicated due to disagreement between the U.S. and Africa on how to proceed in Syria.
· This is “strike season” in South Africa. Workers’ strikes are regulated, permitted and structured…until recently, obviously. (Even the experts threw up their hands when asked to explain the dynamics behind the horrible problems at the platinum mine.) We were reminded that strikes played a very important part in South Africa’s history – without strikes as a mechanism to protest abuses, apartheid may have plagued the region longer than it did.
· The State Department invests in cultural interactions for leaders, by funding ACYPL but also by setting aside significant funding each year for programs like the Fulbright and language exchange programs. They also have a program entitled the International Visitors Leadership Program; currently, 320 prominent international leaders and heads of state have gone through the exchange program that brings foreign politicians to the U.S. It gets more impressive when you consider that they were not prominent leaders when they were invited to participate in the program – they’re invited because someone predicted that they would become something more than they were when they were put on a plane to come learn American politics. My favorite example: Margaret Thatcher participated in the program early in her career.
Overwhelmed by information and slightly daunted by the tales of successful people who had participated in programs similar to ours, we hopped on the bus again for a trip to the Namibian embassy.